Does community-based forest management work in the tropics?

  • To find out if community-based forest management is effective, we read 30 studies that best represent the available evidence. (See the interactive infographic below.)
  • Overall, community-based forest management does not appear to make a forest’s condition worse — and may even make it better.
  • The evidence on socio-economic benefits is mixed, but what research there is suggests that community-based forest management sometimes aggravates existing inequities within communities.
  • This story is part of a special Mongabay series on “Conservation Effectiveness”.

Piles of wood lie in an open area behind the main office of the Arabari Reserve Forest in West Bengal, India. Long logs and cut planks of sal trees (Shorea robusta), wet from the incessant rain. The timber is ready to be auctioned, a forest department staffer says, and a portion of the profits will be shared with people living around the forest.

Some of those people reside about a kilometer away, in a village called Sakhisol. Forty-one women from the village have formed a committee that helps the forest department plant and harvest the sal trees and protect the Arabari forest. In return, the committee is entitled to 25 percent of the profit from the sale of the timber and access to forest products, says Anjum Mahato, one of the committee members. “Some of the women are in the forest right now collecting sal leaves [used for making plates and cups] and mushrooms,” she adds.

Mahato, and the three women by her side, seem excited about this partnership. “Women are the ones who usually collect things from the forests, so it’s good that we get to be involved in how Arabari is managed,” she says.
Forty-one women from the village Sakhisol have formed a forest protection committee in Arabari Reserve Forest, West Bengal, India. Photo by Shreya Dasgupta for Mongabay.

Arabari’s community and forest department partnership isn’t new. It started as an experiment some 45 years ago, and its apparent success sparked the Indian government’s Joint Forest Management (JFM) program, which then spread rapidly. According to the latest figures from 2011, more than 118,000 people’s committees are managing 229,000 square kilometers (88,417 square miles), or nearly a third, of India’s forests. The program also boasts millions of dollars in investment from international aid agencies like the World Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

The JFM is often included under the umbrella term “community-based forest management” (CFM), a form of stewardship that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “increases the role of local people in governing and managing forest resources.”

Like the JFM, scores of other CFM programs have taken shape around the world in the past few decades. These programs go by different names, such as participatory forest management, community forest co-management, or community forest management. And they differ in their rules, goals and practices. But, in general, they all aim to give rural communities roles in sustainably managing their local forests either by letting them partner with the government or by recognizing their rights to access and manage the forest themselves.

On paper, community-based forest management sounds like a good idea and it has garnered strong support internationally. But experts familiar with this conservation strategy have found that while CFM may be succeeding in meeting some of its goals, it fails to achieve others. By reviewing some of the scientific literature on CFM’s impacts, we have tried to tease apart its effectiveness.